Still life of gun shot shells on reflective black background

The Real Enemy of the Environment is Bad Product Design

Every day I walk my dog and every day I pick up garbage that has mysteriously never made it to the garbage or recycling bin. It pains me to see what humans so mindlessly pitch waste out their car windows or drop by the side of the road. Every day I think humans are disgusting and lazy and they deserve to die out.

On better days I think, not ALL humans are horrible. Some are trying to change the way things are done. It’s just easier to see the actions of the nasty ones then it is to see the ones that are doing good.

Over the Holidays I had the pleasure of reading a fascinating book called The Upcycle, by William McDonough and Michael Braungart. This is the follow up book to their first collaboration, Cradle to Cradle.

Each book outlines their drive for a new way to design for the planet. Designing for Cradle to Cradle or C2C “means that a material or its component chemicals could be reused endlessly, safely.” It is the opposite of our current way of thinking where everything can just be thrown away. To a certain extent it encourages recycling, but smart recycling. It means making products with the whole product cycle in mind. Not just its first purpose, but the second and maybe the third until it breaks down into smaller particles and starts all over again.

Composting is nature’s C2C. Food grows from the soil, we consume what we need, the leftover bits are then allowed to decompose and eventually nourish the next generation of food. Bill and Michael argue in their books that when designing a product or service, companies must think about the bigger picture, not just the immediate gain. The question should always be — what’s next and where are we going with this?

This book was brought to mind recently with the huge press coverage of Terracycle’s new initiative called Loop — a program of ordering products online in reusable packaging that can be returned to the manufacturer — aka, the Milkman. It was introduced at the World Economic Forum in Davos, Switzerland. Terracycle “is an innovative recycling company that has become a global leader in recycling hard-to-recycle waste.”(1) They have worked with some of the largest companies, encouraging them to change their packaging to include recycled materials.

However, the recycling business is not going well. Overall, about 91% of all the plastic waste ever created has never been recycled — a statistic so “concerning,” the Royal Statistical Society named it the 2018 international statistic of the year. (2) The Chinese have drastically reduced the amount of recycled materials they import from the west and this has left recycling companies struggling to figure out what to do with all their collected waste. This brings to mind what people like Annie Leonard of “The Story of Stuff” have been saying for years; that recycling is not the answer to our waste problem.

Recycling alone will never stem the flow of plastics into our oceans; we have to get to the source of the problem and slow down the production of all this plastic waste. Think about it. If your home was flooding because you had left the faucet on, your first step wouldn’t be to start mopping. You’d first cut the flooding off at its source — the faucet. In many ways, our plastics problem is no different. (3)

We are consumers of products who love the convenience of going to the store and bringing home things in easy to carry packages. But, as Leonard says, “not long ago, we existed in a world without throwaway plastic, and we can thrive that way again.”(4) Which makes the Terracycle program so interesting. Bring back the Milkman, modern style, by ordering online and having UPS pick up the reusable packaging in reusable boxes. It seems like it might fit the C2C mentality of looking at the full cycle of a product’s life. Except in this case it only addresses one aspect of the product, the package, It does not address the contents, and it hints at a bit of green washing.

The companies that Terracycle has brought into this experiment are the ones that can afford it; Coke, Nestle, Unilever among others. All of these companies currently face serious backlash for being the biggest contributors of plastic waste. They are in fact on Greenpeace’s Top 10 of the Worst Plastic Polluters.(5) The Break Free from Plastic (#breakfreefromplastic) movement was created to shame these producers of plastic by posting images in social media of trash with their logos lining the streets and waterways.

And it’s working. These companies know they need some good press and perhaps they think the Terracycle program is how they can get it. But as consumers, we need to look at the bigger picture. What exactly are these companies producing? What chemicals go into the production of antiperspirant, Coke, and Clorox disinfecting wipes? How are they produced?

A product is more than just its package. It’s also what happens to the contents when they wash down the drain or get thrown away. Some antiperspirant contains known carcinogens that have been banned in Europe, the chemical make up of coke has been well documented, and Clorox wipes are not biodegradable. In addition, the CEO of Nestle has stated that he does not believe that access to water is a human right and so Nestle continues to drain essential aquifers for profit.

One of the mantra’s of the Break Free From Plastic movement has been its high time we put the responsibility for pollution back on the manufacturers. Changes in how they produce products will have a much higher impact on the environment than me carrying my own shopping bag or coffee mug. How we as consumers can make a difference is by not buying their products. By showing them over and over that not only do we want better packaging but we want better and safer products that don’t harm us or pollute the planet at every stage of production. So while I applaud Terracycle’s program, I will never participate because I don’t shop from any of those companies. On the other hand, I know I am a niche consumer, one who buys organic, doesn’t mind seeking out independent grocers who sell in bulk and who buys or makes only all natural cleaning products. Most people don’t care.

The challenge for Terracycle’s Loop program will be to get those consumers who do currently buy those products to take the time to order a few products online and organize shipping of the containers back to the manufacturer. To become “niche” as it were. But if it succeeds perhaps it will set the stage for new developments more in line with C2C.

The advantage of a C2C mentality is that, when applied across the economy, no one has to be niche. No one has to be inconvenienced or go out of their way to protect the planet. The system and the products it creates would already be doing that. There would be no waste to manage because everything is produced in a way that can be reused or repurposed continuously. This utopia may seem overly optimistic to some but the model works and the book describes ways that the authors have helped companies change how they think and work in order to create new and exciting systems and products. And while the cynic reading this might think it could never be profitable, the authors’ experience has been just the opposite. They found that as each company seeks out new ways of doing things, there is a ripple effect that stretches out to their suppliers and competition. To quote the book,

And this gives me hope because I know that until we are truly faced with a catastrophic, in your face, environmental crisis, people are more likely to respond to things that are simple and make them feel good. It is much harder and takes more thought to be an advocate for the environment. I know I will continue to curse the trash I pick up every day but it is good to know that people are making a difference somewhere. Humans are essentially innovators, we are constantly seeking out new ideas, new ways to solve problems. The Cradle to Cradle philosophy encourages us to solve our current problems with more thoughtful design that supports us and the planet. It’s not easy but no one ever said it would be. And frankly, at this point, what choice do we have?

To learn more about the book click here.

To read more about the C2C certification and institution click here

Further reading about Loop

Piles of Clothing

Our Obsession With Clothing Is Killing The Planet

The fashion industry is one of the most polluting industries in the world.

Wait. What?

From the production of fabric to clothing disposal, this billion dollar industry has a devastating effect on the planet and it’s being fed by our need for cheap, convenient and trendy clothes. Everything you see in the malls is now called Fast Fashion. It’s opposite, Slow Fashion just might save us.

I don’t remember when I read the term Slow Fashion for the first time. It was probably on Pinterest. You see I was researching what to do with old jeans. We had about 10 pairs where 90% of the fabric was still good. I couldn’t give them to charity. They were unwearable. Every instinct in me told me not to throw out so much fabric. As a seamstress, I had this feeling before. There are always ends or leftover fabric from a project. Through my research I found tons of creative uses for left-over jean fabric on Pinterest. People are so creative. In the end I made a lovely quilt.


Quilt Made of Jeans

But the research led me down a very interesting path of recycled and re-worked clothing that inevitably led me to the world of sustainable or Slow Fashion.

I was instantly intrigued to know more. I have struggled with the fashion industry for some time for many reasons, mainly sexism and impracticality. And I have known for a while about the issue of cheap labour in Asia but I think things really started to come to the forefront of my mind with the tragic clothing factory disaster in Bangladesh in 2013.

The problem with the Fast Fashion industry starts with the fabric. The production of cotton, one of the most widely used fibres, requires huge amounts of water and pesticides. For example, one pair of jeans requires 1600 gallons of water. Most clothes are made from cotton or a combination of cotton and polyester. Polyester (in its various forms) is made from oil and is completely non-biodegradable. In addition, the dyes used in clothing are also not biodegradable and are seldom disposed of properly.

To save costs on labour, clothing has been made in Asia for many years. Though the economists call this a win for globalization, the reality includes horrible conditions, un-livable wages and of course, terrible fires and loss of life. After the clothes are produced they are then shipped back to the west on boats that spew copious amounts of carbon dioxide into the air.

Finally, we have the fact that Fast Fashion is driven by the production of new styles of clothing every three months. We used to have 4 seasons or cycles of new clothing in stores. Now people are encouraged to change their wardrobe constantly. And with the advent of stores like Forever 21 and H&M the clothes are sold very cheaply. But they are also very low quality which means people throw out clothes after only a few washes. Estimates say that the average citizen throws away 80 lbs of clothing a year. Current US records show that only 15% of clothes are recycled which means 85% are thrown into landfills. The 15% that are reused are often given to thrift shops. But often the clothes that are not sold in North America are sent to developing countries “in need” and if not sold there will end up in their landfills.

So is nudity the answer? Should we just stop buying clothes completely?

Honestly, the more I learned about this industry and its environmental crimes, the more shocked and concerned I became. But what are the alternatives? We still need to clothe ourselves.

The good news is that there is an incredible growing movement of Slow Fashion designers. There are some big name designers who have been leading the way for some time such as Stella McCartney, and Eileen Fisher. And with the help of celebrities like Emma Watson who is known to sport sustainable fashion at very public events, the word is starting to get out.

But what can we do to make a difference?

1. Buy less:

First and foremost, really ask yourself if you need that new top or pair of jeans. Start to question why you want it. Be a practical shopper not an emotional one. Companies respond to demand so the less we buy, the less they make.

2. Buy better:

Do some research into the brands you normally buy from. Shop for sustainable and or ethical clothing. Look for clothes made of organic cotton, bamboo, or hemp. A few years ago it was hard to find this type of clothing and most of it is still online only. But things are starting to change.

3. Fix your clothes:

If you aren’t handy with a needle find someone who is. I mean really, they are selling jeans with huge rips in them. Surely you can go out and about with wearing something that has been repaired or altered. Be different! Define your own style.

4. Have a swap party:

Invite your friends over to swap the clothes you no longer want or never really fit well.

5. Donate your clothes to charity:

Many charities have clothing drives at special times of the year. If there is a special cause you want to support find out when their next drive is. Value Village is also a good place to donate your clothes. Find charities that explain what they do with clothing that is not sold.

6. Look for textile recycling in your area:

Some neighbourhoods have special clothing boxes at malls and gas stations but make sure they are legitimate companies. Clothing can be recycled, even your worn out socks. Create a bin or bag for your torn or worn out clothing. Polyester for example, unlike used cotton can be recycled (broken down and spun back into new fibres). Other fabric can be turned into rags and the rest can be used for carpets and car cushions.

7. Cut up those old t-shirts for rags:

I use these rags instead of paper towels to clean my windows. They work great and can be washed and reused.

Slow Fashion isn’t easy but then nothing of real value ever is. It also costs a bit more. That too is like most things of true value. If you can’t afford to buy new, shop at Thrift Stores as reusing clothing works just as well. We have become too accustomed to a disposable society. It is better to spend a little more and get something that lasts, something you will cherish, then to buy the latest trend that will fall apart after one wash.

Truly the message once again is be aware, buy only what you need and buy smarter.

To learn more about this and other unsustainable product cycles, watch The Story of Stuff on YouTube.